Cuba ready to authorize GM corn crop: scientists

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba could soon authorize the planting of 124 acres of genetically-modified corn for the first time to help reduce its dependence on costly food imports, Cuban scientists said on Tuesday.

Regulators are expected to approve this initial crop of biotech corn, which would provide enough seed to expand to 14,830 acres next year, said Carlos Borroto, deputy director of state-run Institute for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology.

“We expect over the next few days to get the license for those 50 hectares,” he told reporters. “This is very important, because the alternative is to keep relying on imports.”

Cuba imports around 60 percent of its food, including large amounts of soy, wheat and corn. The United States is the Communist-ruled island’s largest food supplier under an amendment to its trade embargo on Cuba.

Cuban President Raul Castro recently called increased agricultural output a matter of “national security” as soaring international food prices are expected to drain more than $2 billion from the government’s coffers this year.

Some environmental groups oppose transgenic crops because they say the food may hold unknown long-term health dangers. But GMO supporters say the crops carry no health risks and are the only way to reduce world food shortages.

Borroto said biotech corn similar to the Cuban type had already passed strict controls in Japan, Canada and Europe. Cuban laboratories are also in the development stages of producing genetically modified soy, potatoes and tomatoes.

International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, a non-profit group promoting biotech foods, estimates GMO crops are now grown in 23 countries, mostly by poor farmers in developing countries.

“You have a need for more and better food, nutritionally. This technology can provide you with that option,” said the group’s founder Clive James, a British scientist who was invited to Havana by the Cuban institute. “I believe there is an opportunity for Cuba to do so in the near term.”

Cuba’s harvests have been battered this year by three hurricanes that the government estimates caused nearly $10 billion in damages. The storms destroyed 30 percent of the country’s crops, touching off brief food shortages.

Writing by Patrick Markey in Havana, editing by Anthony Boadle